I don’t have a ‘favourite blogger’ as such, but if I had to draw up a personal top-five list, it would definitely include Brendan O’Neill. If you are looking for an author who skilfully exposes the authoritarianism, the censoriousness, the snobbery, the Luddism and the perennial hysteria which characterises large sections of the contemporary left, Brendan is your man.
But while most of his columns are spot on, the few which are off the mark really are off by a million miles. His recent post about the rise of the ‘stay-at-home generation’ is one of them.
Brendan is set on the idea that ‘Generation Y’ is a generation of self-indulgent, self-pitying wimps, who should stop whining, grow up, and get a life. So it is grist to his mill that since the mid-1990s, the proportion of 20- to 34-year-olds who still live with their parents has been rising sharply. He rejects the explanation that this is a result of escalating housing costs, and insists that ‘it isn’t hardship that keeps loads of young adults at home, but cowardice, an unwillingness to do what just about every generation before them did: take a risk, leave home, suffer deprivations, live off Pot Noodles […] I think the rise of the “Boomerang Generation” or the “four-car family” or “the stay-at-home generation” – all polite euphemisms for “saddos” – is actually a cultural rather than economic phenomenon. It’s not that these people can’t afford to move out, but that they don’t want to.’
Brendan presents two main arguments to back this claim:
- Many of the stay-at-homes are car owners, which suggests that they are not too hard-pressed.
- In earlier decades, incomes were much lower, but young people still managed to move out of their parents’ home.
So Brendan essentially argues that somebody who moves out of their parents’ home at a young age today is not worse off than somebody who would have done the same, say, twenty years ago. That may be true, but it is not especially relevant. The big economic change that has occurred since the mid-1990s is that housing costs have increased not just relative to earnings, but also relative to the cost of nearly everything else. This means that the opportunity cost of moving out early has increased massively. Today’s early home-leaver may not be worse off than their counterpart two decades ago, but for every month that they antedate the cutting of the apron strings, they give up a much greater quantity of other goods and services. Expressed in ‘units’ of travelling abroad, clubbing, dining out etc., the cost of leaving the family home early is vastly greater today than in previous decades. It is also vastly greater for a young Brit than it is for a young person in a place where the housing market is not crippled by insane planning restrictions.
A bit of anecdotal evidence on that note: When I started university, almost all of my fellow students had already left their family home, or were about to do so. This was not because they all shared Brendan’s views on moving out early, but because the opportunity cost of moving out was low. If you avoided the fancy areas, and if you were willing to forego a few comforts, you could find places for sensationally low rents. During my first year of studies, I lived in a plattenbau-wasteland in East Berlin, in an area where a visitor from Pyongyang or Minsk would have felt very much at home. But I paid no more than DM220, later €110, inclusive of water, gas and electricity bills. No, not per week. Per month, that is. As to the opportunity cost: a pint of beer, at the time, would have cost just under €3, let’s say €2.75. This means that expressed in units of beer, my flat ‘cost’ 40 pints a month.
Now compare that to London. A three-bedroom flat in Haringey at the 30th percentile of the local rent distribution costs about £1,500 a month, i.e. £500 per head if shared between three. With a pint of beer standing at about £4, this means that for a London student, the opportunity cost of the roof over their head is 125 pints of beer a month. Is it really surprising that big differences in opportunity costs lead to big differences in people’s behaviour?
Brendan is wrong to assert that the stay-at-homes do not ‘want’ to leave the nest, in the sense of somebody who would have to be dragged out kicking and screaming. They do want to move out early – but not at any cost. They want to move out early, but it is not their only goal in life. They also want other things, and if moving out entails giving up so much else, they are prepared to defer it for another year or two.
There is nothing in the British soil which makes homes expensive. They are expensive because there not enough of them in the right places, and there are not enough of them because British housing policies are run for the benefit of the nimbys, the nodams (no development after mine) and the bananas (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything). Brendan should have spared the easy target, and should have criticised those groups instead. They are the ones who constantly pour out the kind of Luddite arguments which, in his other columns, Brendan usually wipes the floor with. They stand for almost everything he is against, so why does he let them off the hook?